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both of its heads were equally poisonous. Then there were
yellow mice as large as ravens, and another kind as big
as dogs, that must have looked rather like kangaroos, and a
great many others, of which pictures may be found in
old books. But none, not even the griffin or the unicorn,
was as tierce as the small black basilisk, which was only
a foot long. It got its name from a white mark on its
forehead the shape of a crown, so they called it ' the
king,' from the Greek word ' basileus.'' It seems odd that
such a tiny little animal could have caused such dread in
men as well as beasts, but it really was a terrible little
creature. It was enough for it to hiss for every living
thing that heard it to scamper away to its den. If it spat,
its venom was so deadly that rocks were rent by it, any
bird that flew over it fell down dead into its jaws, and by
merely looking at a man it killed the life within him. If
he happened to come across a basilisk for the first time,
and tried to cut off its head instead of running away, he
fared no better, for the poison from its mouth would fly
along the blade and cause his instant death.

\Ve may wonder how, after a few years, there was
anything but basilisks left on the earth, and perhaps there
would not have been, but for the presence of weasels and
of crystals. Weasels and basilisks had a natural hatred of
each other, and rushed at each other's throats at every
opportunity. The battle always ended in the same way,
by the death of both combatants, for though ' the weasel
overcomes the basilisk with its strong smell, yet it dies



ANTS, AMPHISB^NAS, BASILISKS 15

withal.' The piece of crystal was more useful still, for if
you held it up between you and the basilisk and looked




THE DEMON OFCATMT



through it the poison of the animal was driven back on
itself, and killed the monster instead of the victim.



16 ANTS, AMPHISB^NAS, BASILISKS

There are no basilisks nowadays, but their re-
membrance still lives in many of our proverbs.

The Demon of Cathay and his proceedings recall
several of our old fairy tales, especially some of the
Arabian Nights. He could talk the language of man and
imitate any voice he chose, so that if he found a solitary
traveller walking through a forest he would call to him
by his name in the tones of some of his friends. The
traveller would leave the path and go in the direction of
the voice, when the Demon would spring out and devour
him. Or he would mimic the roll of drums, or the
blast of trumpets, and the poor man in surprise would
think he must be drawing near a city, or at any rate ap-
proaching an army, so he would go in search of the
sounds, only to find, when it was too late, that it was a
trick of his deadly enemy's.

Quite as strange as the creatures on dry land were
those that dwelt in the sea, for every animal that lived on
earth had its fellow in the ocean. We read of sea-bears,
sea-foxes, sea-asses, even of sea-peacocks ; and now
and then one might be found on the beach after a great
storm.

Once some Dutch women, going down to the shore
after a gale to see what they could pick up, were startled
at finding a beautiful girl, with a fish's tail, lying among
the shells and sea- weeds, beyond high-water mark. This
was a mermaid, as anybody else would have known a
gentle creature, but without a soul. They took her home
and taught her to spin and weave, and to kneel before a
crucifix ; but she was not happy, and always tried to
escape into the sea. The Dutch women did not mean
to be cruel, but they liked to have her there, and she was
useful to them, so they kept a close watch upon her, and
she lingered on in their house for fifteen years, fading
gradually away, and dying in the year 1418.

On the opposite side of the North Sea, in the Firth of
Forth, as well as in the Baltic and the Ked Sea, sea-monks




FINDING A MERMAID



ANTS, AMPHISB^NAS, BASILISKS 19

were at one time quite common, if we may believe a
Scotch historian. Like their land brothers, they had
a shaven spot on their heads, and wore robes and cowls ;
but instead of trying to help those who needed it, in one
way or another, as land monks were supposed to do, they
ate up everybody that came within reach. After this it is
a comfort to think that a pair of shoes made from the
skin of the sea-monk would last fifteen years !

Having once invented sea-monks, it was easy to go on
and invent a sea- bishop, and pictures of him may still be
seen in early books of travels with a crozier in his hand
and a mitre on his head, and splendid vestments over his
shoulders. He must have been a beautiful prize to catch,
but he was very rare, and did not flourish out of the water.
One was sent to the King of Poland as a present, but he
pined away, and at length, finding himself in the presence
of some bishops dressed like himself, he implored them
by signs to release him from captivity. Overcome with
pity for their brother in distress, they prevailed on the
King to grant him his freedom, and when he heard
the joyful news the sea-bishop at once made the sign
of the Cross by way of thanks. The bishops escorted
their brother solemnly to the sea-coast, and as he plunged
beneath the waves he turned and raised two fingers, in
the true form of episcopal blessing, and has never been
seen on earth again, as far as we know !



c2



20



DRAGONS

NEARLY a thousand years ago there lived a historian
who set down in his book not only accounts of real
battles and sieges, but also a strange medley of other
facts besides. Of course he thought all he wrote was
true, for history, as the dictionary tells us, is ' an account
of facts and events/ and the business of the historian is
to write about them. The stories in this old book about
magic, spells, dragons, and monsters may, perhaps, make
us smile nowadays, when we are taught that fairy rings
are not caused, as we should like to suppose, by the
good people, but by ' an agaric or fungus below the sur-
face which has seeded in a circular range.' But it must
be remembered that to the men of old time all these
matters were very real. Our historian, in common with
many wise men who lived hundreds of years after him,
believed without doubt that the world was full of strange
creatures which lived in pathless woods, in rivers, on
mountains, or in the sea. One of his tales is the descrip-
tion of a voyage by King Gorm Haraldson, under the
guidance of Thorkill the Icelander, in quest of treasure
supposed to be guarded by Giant Garfred, who lived in
a ' land where no light was, and where darkness reigned
eternally.' ' The whole way was beset with perils, and
hardly passable by mortal man ; ' nevertheless, three
hundred men declared their willingness to follow the
King and make the attempt. After many adventures the
wind took them to Utter Permland, a region of eternal



DRAGONS 21

cold and deep snows, full of pathless forests, haunted by
dreadful beasts. King Gorm and his followers were met
by a huge man named Gudmund, the brother of Giant
Garfred, who gave himself out to be the guardian the
most faithful guardian of all men who landed in that
spot. In reality he was a treacherous scoundrel, but
at the outset he invited them to be his guests, and ' took
them up in carriages.' ' As they went forward they
saw a river which could be crossed by a bridge of gold.
They wished to go over it, but Gudmund restrained them,
telling them that, by this channel, Nature had divided
the world of men from the world of monsters, and that
no mortal track might go further.' Well, here we take
leave of King Gorrn and Gudmund, and we will cross in
imagination that golden bridge into monster-land, though
they did not, nor does our historian, give any particular
description of the monsters which lived there ; but, from
other ancient writers, we can get a pretty fair idea of
what he would have been likely to say about them if it
had suited his purpose. He would certainly have in-
cluded a stray dragon or two ; indeed, elsewhere, he does
actually give us two dragon-slaying stories, the first of
which concerns King Fridleif, who was wrecked on an
unknown island.

He fell asleep, and dreamt that a man appeared before
him, and ordered him to dig up a buried treasure, and to
attack the dragon that guarded it. To withstand the
poison of the creature, he was told to cover himself and
his shield with an ox-hide. When he awoke he saw the
dragon coming out of the sea, but its scales were so hard
that the spears thrown by Fridleif had no effect, and the
only thing that happened was the uprooting of several
trees by the monster, which wound its tail round them
in a fit of temper. However, the King observed that by
constantly going down to the sea the dragon had worn a
path, hollowing the ground down to the solid rock to
such an extent that a bank rose sheer on each hand ; so



22 DRAGONS

Fridleif seems to have lain in ambush, as it were, in this
hollow channel, and to have attacked the creature from
beneath, where its armour was less proof against assault ;
in this way he slew it, unearthed the money, and had it
taken off in his ships.

The second story concerns another King, called Eagnar
Lodbrog, which means Eagnar ' Shaggy-Breeches.' This
is how he came to be known by his nickname, which was
bestowed upon him by Herodd, King of the Swedes :
Eagnar was in love with Thora, Herodd's daughter, who
had received from her father two snakes to rear as pets.
They had given to them daily a whole ox upon which to
gorge themselves, so they ate and ate, and grew and grew,
until at length they became a public nuisance, so huge
were they, and so venomous withal that they poisoned the
whole country-side with their breath. The Swedish King
repented his unlucky gift, and proclaimed that whosoever
should remove the pests should marry his daughter.
Many tried and perished ; but Eagnar was now to prove
himself the hero. He asked his nurse for a woollen
mantle, and for some thigh-guards that were very hairy ;
he also put on a dress stuffed with hair, not too cumber-
some, but one in which he could easily move about. He
took a sword and spear, and, thus accoutred, fared forth
to Sweden. When he arrived, he plunged into some
water, clothes and all, and allowed the frost to fashion for
him, as it were, a coat of mail, impervious to the venom
of the snakes. Leaving his companions, he went on to
the palace alone ; then the combat began. An enormous
snake met him, and another, as big, crawled up to help
its companion : they belaboured Eagnar with their tails,
and spat venom at him from poisonous jaws. Meantime,
the King and his courtiers ' betook themselves to safer
hiding, watching the struggle from afar, like affrighted
little girls.' Eagnar, however, persevered, his frozen dress
protecting him from the poison, and with his shield he
repelled the attacks of the snakes' teeth ; at last, though



DEAGONS 23

hard pressed, he thrust his spear through the creatures'
hearts, and his battle ended in victory. A great banquet
was held in the palace ; Eagnar received at once his bride
and his nickname of ' Shaggy-Breeches,' as we have seen.
He did many other brave deeds, and was a successful
rover ; but was cruelly put to death by an English King
called Ella, who threw him into a pit full of snakes.
Eagnar 's device of freezing himself into a suit of ice




HAGNAB DOES BATTLE WITH THE SERPENTS

armour recalls to us a similar plan adopted by a race of
monsters universally believed to have lived in Africa ;
nearly all the old writers of marvels allude to them, under
the name of ' Cynocephali,' w T hich means ' dog-headed,'
that is to say, their bodies were those of men and women,
but their heads were the heads of dogs. They lived upon
goat's milk ; but although that seems to mean that they
dwelt quietly amongst flocks and herds, they seem never-
theless to have been fond of a fight whenever there was



24 DEAGONS

the least chance of war with neighbouring tribes. To pre-
pare for battle, like Kagnar, they jumped into water, and
then rolled themselves in the dust until their bodies were
covered with it; then they allowed the sun, which, of
course, is always very powerful in Africa, to bake it into
a sort of cake or mud-pie crust, which formed the first
layer of defensive armour ; when that was sufficiently
dry and hard they repeated the process, not once or
twice only, but again and again, until they thought their
coat of mail, if we may so call it, strong enough to be
proof against the arrows of the enemy.

A very worthy writer, who lived about 1600, has told
us that he quite believes in the reality of winged dragons.
After giving us some wonderful stories about them, he
remarks that ' from these and similar tales we can easily
see that what we find in other authors about winged
dragons is all true.'

Switzerland, especially that part of it round about
the Lake of Lucerne, was famous for these creatures.
There is opposite to the town of Lucerne a mountain,
called Pilatus, from the tradition that Pontius Pilate,
when banished by the Roman Emperor Tiberius,
wandered there, and threw himself into a black lake at
the summit. His ghost is supposed to haunt the place ;
once a year it appears, clothed in robes of office, and
whoever is unlucky enough to see it, will die before the
year is out. Mount Pilatus often has on a cap of cloiids,
and it is said that the weather will be fine, or the reverse,
according as Pilatus has his cap off or on. We may well
imagine it, therefore, to be a wild, eerie sort of place, in
every way suitable for dragons to take up their abode.
Our old author then tells us that a peasant one morning
was mowing hay; he looked up, and at that moment
there issued from Pilatus a huge dragon, which flew
across the lake to a mountain on the other side. In its
flight there dropped from it something which the peasant
could not clearly distinguish, for he was too frightened



DRAGONS 25

to observe accurately, and indeed was nearly fainting ;
but when he recovered, he found in a meadow a mass of
what appeared to be solid blood. Enclosed in this was a
stone of many colours ; this stone turned out to be of
priceless value, for it was a certain cure for every disease
under the sun ; and more especially for such as were
caused by poison or bad air of any kind ; it was still in
Lucerne at the time the author wrote.

Another man of that city, called Victor, saw a still
stranger thing on Mount Pilatus. He was a cooper by
trade, and one day, when out looking for wood wherewith
to make his casks, he lost his way in the recesses of
these Alpine rocks and forests. All day long he wandered
about, until, at twilight, as he was just about to lie down
and rest, he fell into a deep chasm which, owing to the
failing light, he had not noticed. Fortunately he fell
into some soft mud at the bottom, but though he broke
no bones, he fainted. When he recovered, and began to
look round, he discovered that there were absolutely no
means of escape. The hole was as deep as a well, with
steep sides w r hich could not be scaled. Stretching along
the whole length of this cavern, and on either side, were
other tunnel-like openings, a succession of smaller caves;
into one of which he was about to enter when, lo ! two
dragons came forth from it, and he supposed that his last
hour was at hand. The creatures, however, offered him
no violence ; they were inquisitive, it is true, wondering,
no doubt, what sort of new companion this was, who had
found his way into their dwelling ; but all they did was
to rub themselves against the man's body, caressing him,
as it w^ere, with their long necks and with their tails, just
like a purring cat. For six months Victor lived in this
underground cavern. ' But what did he live on ? ' you may
ask, with Alice, when the Dormouse told his story of
Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie in the well. These thi*ee sisters,
you may remember, lived upon treacle, which was
sweet, if unwholesome ; but the Lucerne man's diet was



26 DRAGONS

even less satisfying, being only the moisture which
trickled from the surface of the rock. Learned men have
certainly proved that it is possible to keep oneself alive
for many weeks without food, if a sufficient supply of
water be taken ; but I do not remember to have met with
any other case where any one lived for six months
upon such provender. When spring came round the
dragons thought it time to leave their abode ; unfolding
its wings, the first one flew up, and the second was
preparing to follow, when Victor, seizing at once his
opportunity and the tail of the dragon, was carried by
the creature into the upper world. He found his way
back to Lucerne ; but a return to his ordinary food, of
which he had been for so long deprived, brought on an
illness, and in two months he died. His adventures were
embroidered upon an ecclesiastical vestment, which used
to be shown in the church of St. Leodegarus to any sight-
seers who might wish to see it.

Near the church of St. Stephen in the city of Ehodes
there was a vast rock, and a cavern in it from which
issued a stream of water. 1 In this subterranean cave
there lived, in the year 1345, a terrible dragon, which
devastated the whole island ; not only did it devour sheep,
cattle, men, anything living, upon which it could seize,
but its breathing was so pestilential that the very
atmosphere was poisoned by it. Nobody could venture
to go near the part of the coast where it dwelt ; in fact
the Grand Master of the Knights strictly forbade any-
body belonging to the Order to attempt it, under this
severe penalty : First, he was to suffer the disgrace of

1 The Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, or the Knights Hospi-
tallers, as they are sometimes called, were an Order founded in the
eleventh century, some time after the first crusade ; in the fourteenth
century they took the Island of Ehodes, in the Mediterranean, and
held it against the Turks. It was during their life in this island
that the events occurred which are now to be described. The
account is taken from a history of the Order, which is quoted word
for word by the author who has told us the story of the Lucerne
dragons.




VICTOR CARRIED UP THE CHASM BY THK DRAGON



DEAGONS 29

being deprived of the marks and dress of the Order ; and,
secondly, his very life was to be forfeited. Nevertheless
there was a young Gascon Knight, of noble birth and
great courage, who was not to be deterred from his project
by this edict ; on the contrary, he thought an opportunity
presented itself of winning much honour and renown.
His name was Deodatus de Gozon. He kept his own
counsel, telling nobody in the city of his plan, but he
went to the Grand Master and begged leave of absence
on the pretext of business at home. Having got leave
he went into the country to carry out his design ; but he
was careful, before starting, to observe the dragon as
closely as possible, so as to remember every point in
its horrid carcass. What he saw is thus described : It
had a body as thick as that of a carthorse ; its long and
prickly neck ended in a serpent's head, which was pro-
vided with long ears like those of a mule ; its mouth
gaped widely open, and was furnished with the sharpest
of teeth ; its enormous eyes shone so brightly that they
seemed to emit flames of fire ; and its feet (of which it
had four) were armed, like bears' feet, with sharp claws.
In its tail and other parts of its body it resembled a
crocodile, wearing an armour of the hardest scales
cunningly disposed ; from its sides issued two gristly
wings, in colour not unlike a dolphin's gills the upper
surface blue, the lower a sort of reddish yellow, this last
being the general hue of its entire body. Swifter than
a horse, when it moved abroad in search of food, it did
so partly by flying, partly by running; its scales, too,
made such a clattering, as of crockery, and its hissing
was so terrifying that people at a great distance were
almost frightened to death.

De Gozon, accordingly, having looked carefully at the
monster, as we said, withdrew into the country, where
he set to work and contrived a creature exactly like the
dragon in every respect ; he made it of paper and stuffed
it with tow ; then he bought a well-trained charger, and



30 DEAGONS

a couple of English dogs bull-dogs, in all probability.
He now taught his servants how to make the tow
dragon imitate the movements of the real dragon ; that
is to say, they snapped its jaws, and made it lash its
tail about and flap its wings ; all this they did by means
of ropes. Next he mounted his horse and brought his
dogs into action, setting them at the sham dragon, and
exciting them with cries, until their rage knew no bounds ;
hardly did they set eyes upon it, when they flew at it to
tear it in pieces. These exercises went on for the space
of two months, at the end of which De Gozon, consider-
ing his men and dogs sufficiently well drilled, returned
to the city. An-ived there he lost no time in carrying
out his project ; arming himself with breastplate, lance
and sword, he went to the church of St. Stephen, which
was near the monster's den, and prayed, devout knight
as he was, that his enterprise might be crowned with
success. He then gave particular instructions to his
servants as to what they were to do : they were to watch
the battle from a lofty rock, and if the creature won, they
were to escape as best they could ; but if he slew the
dragon, they were to hasten to his aid, for it was only
too likely that even victory would cost him dear, and that
he would stand sadly in need of such remedies as they
could bring.

All was now ready ; so the Knight, entering the cave,
began to screech and yell lustily in order to wake up the
dragon and annoy it ; then, rushing out himself, he
mounted his charger, and awaited the attack on a piece of
level ground. He did not have long to wait ; scarcely
was he mounted when the sound of the well-known
hissing was heard, and the clattering of the huge plate-
like scales warned him that me monster was after him in
full cry and, indeed, as it came at him, partly running,
partly flying, the creature itself thought it saw in the bold
Knight an opportunity not lightly to be missed ; for all
was grist that came to its mill flocks, herds, horses, and



DEAGONS



31



men, as we have already seen. De Gozon hurled his
spear at the beast, hut the shaft shivered into a hun-
dred pieces against the hard scales, so that, thus early
in the fight, he lost the use of one of his best weapons.
But the dogs now made a diversion in his favour, for by
worrying the monster on this side and on that, they so
engaged its attention that the Knight had time to dis-




DE GOZON AND HIS D06S FIGHT THE DKAGON

mount, and make ready with sword and shield for a
combat on foot. Bearing itself up on its hind legs, the
dragon endeavoured, as a bear will do, to hug its enemy
to death, but it now exposed the under surface of its neck
(which was comparatively unprotected by scales) to the
attack of De Gozon. In an instant he thrust his sword
into its throat ; a deluge of blood gushed out ; the
monster tottered, and fell ; but in its fall crushed to the



32 DRAGONS

ground the brave Knight, who was already sufficiently
wearied with the strife, and half poisoned besides by the
dragon's noisome breath. The servants, however, seeing
the dragon fall, rushed down from the neighbouring
heights, and thinking they could discern some faint
signs of life in their master, tilled their caps with water
from the stream hard by, and dashed it over him. He
soon recovered sufficiently to be able to mount his horse
and ride back to the city, where he told the Grand Master
of his splendid exploit, thinking, not unnaturally, that
honour, reward and glory would be his w r ho had freed
the country from such a dire pest. But, alas ! the Grand
Master set the duty of obedience before even such deeds
as De Gozon's. The Knight had disobeyed the edict,
had been altogether far too foolhardy and presumptuous,
and must take the consequences ; he was accordingly
degraded and imprisoned. Not for very long, however,
we are happy to think, for the tidings soon spread over
the whole island, and people were so strong in his favour,
that the Grand Master was induced to relent. De Gozon
was liberated from prison and reinstated. Shortly after-
wards all the people in the city assembled to do him
honour in a procession ; nor were the brave dogs for-
gotten, for had it not been for their furious onslaught it is
not likely that the Knight would have lived to tell the tale.


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Online LibraryAndrew LangThe red book of animal stories → online text (page 2 of 22)